Forever Plaid's seasonal sequel delivers just what's wanted this time of year: Tidings of comfort and joy
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 28, 2007
Zachary Scott Theatre Center Groten Stage, through Dec. 30
Running time: 2 hr.
When it comes to Plaid Tidings, "White Christmas" isn't just about the snow. Like its predecessor, the phenomenally successful revue Forever Plaid, this seasonal sequel celebrates that midcentury moment when Caucasian culture in the U.S. seemed to reach its zenith. It was the era of Ozzie and Harriet and their neighborly ilk in the boob-tube 'burbs, Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show and Ward and June and the Cleaver boys, while on the pop charts, it was the heyday of Doris Day, Patti Page, Andy Williams, and the like, serving up music as smooth, wholesome, and homogenized as the milk being poured at every suburban dinner table across the land. So when the quartet known as the Plaids starts dipping into the holiday hits catalog, you can be sure that their renditions will boast the creamy, well, whiteness of those "golden days of yore."
That in itself may be enough to let you know whether Plaid Tidings is your cup of holiday cheer. But it's worth noting that Stuart Ross, creator of the Plaid shows, knows how that era's wholesomeness, not to mention its milky pallor, looks 50 years on, especially in a society that's considerably more colorful, culturally speaking, as well as more worldly and spiky with irony to boot. The Plaid revues' saving grace is their ability to laugh at the very culture that they are celebrating, to make light of its syrupy sentiments and vanilla veneer. When Plaid Tidings pays tribute to the calypso craze of the Fifties, it knows how laughable that Caribbean patois sounds coming out of those Midwestern mouths. And it takes its reverence for that period's dreamy singers to an absurd extreme, with the Plaids genuflecting before the spotless cardigan of Perry Como as if it were the Shroud of Turin.
But even as the shows acknowledge the datedness of this pop-culture fluff, they're able to root out from under its candy-coating and hokey pose of innocence something in the music that still catches our ear. Most of the songs themselves, and certainly their performances, were attentive to melody, to the beauty of music and its ability to charm. Put simply, they're pretty, and when they're performed with voices melding in harmony – the Plaids' specialty – they're prettier still. Which is something that's sometimes hard to come by in our frantic, jangling age. These songs soothe. They comfort. Which we need.
That's why Ross brought his four hapless harmonizers back down from on high for this yuletide follow-up. Following 9/11, Ross felt that we all could use a little Christmas, right this very minute, and so resurrected the foursome (whose lives, you may recall, were cut short when their convertible was smashed by a bus full of Catholic schoolgirls on their way to see the Beatles) for one more show they never got to perform in life after the one they got to do in Forever Plaid. Ross works a tad too hard at justifying the Plaids' second coming, getting the guys all angsty over the reasons for their return to earth – a move that undercuts the soothing smoothness of the music, and unnecessarily – but once they work it out – it's just to do a holiday show, right? – Plaid Tidings settles into an entertaining groove on par with the original.
The show dies and lives, so to speak, with the guys who play Sparky, Frankie, Jinx, and Smudge, and the Zachary Scott Theatre Center production is fortunate to have four performers – William Akey, Jon-Michael Hamman, Kevin Farr, and Zach Thompson – whose individual voices not only flow like the requisite cream but mesh in sumptuous – dare I say heavenly? – harmony. Allen Robertson's musical direction draws the most out of the singers, and, backed by Austin Haller's light-fingered piano accompaniment and Brad Shelton's deft bass work, these Plaids are a blessing on the ears. They're fun for the eyes, too, what with Robin Lewis' amusing dance moves and bright direction of the comic bits. (The Plaids' abrupt transformation into a Nineties boy band for "'Twuz tha Nite B4 Xmas" is a highlight.) In short, what we get here is just what's wanted at this time of year: Tidings of comfort and joy.